Children’s Sermon: Being Loved by a God Bigger than the Universe

Using the book “The Ultimate Construction Site Book” and images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Using an idea from Worshipping with Children.

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

Do you like books? I like books. And my family and I really like this book – The Ultimate Construction Site Book. It’s full of images and descriptions of different construction sites where they’re making big and amazing things. Let’s look at a couple of pages.

Go through the book. See how big they are. Talk about how special these big buildings and machines make us feel. And how important those buildings, and others, can be to us. They are awesome.

That feeling you have right now – of being impressed and amazed at these big and important buildings and creations – Jesus’ friends had the same feeling. As we’ll hear in our story about Jesus today, he and his friends are in the Temple – in the big religious building in the city of Jerusalem, like our church but even bigger. And they were super impressed. They saw the big stones that held it together, the elaborate art on the walls, and all the people that were there. They were impressed!

And Jesus was too – but he wanted them to think about things in a different way. He told them that the big building will not last forever. That it will, eventually, fade away. And that, in fact, these big buildings – while big and impressive – shouldn’t be the focus of our love and attention. Because they are all very small compared to the rest of the universe – and to God. In fact, those buildings – and all the buildings in this book – are located here – on earth show the earth image. And the earth – while massive and big – is small compared to the rest of the universe. Show images from the Hubble Space Telescope. The universe is big and vast and amazing. And our God is even bigger and more powerful and amazing than that. Jesus wanted his disciples, and he wants all of us, to think bigger than just the big buildings around us. Jesus wanted his friends to know that the creator of everything – the creator of the universe – God’s love for us is bigger and better than anything else in the universe. Each of us are very small when we compare ourselves to the big buildings, planets, and amazing galaxies that make up the universe. But each of you are loved by the One who created it all. And so let’s always try to think about bigger – to think about more than just our city or our buildings or what seems to impress us. Let’s always think about how God’s love is bigger than all of us – and how we can share that love with everyone.

Thank you for being here! And I hope you have a blessed week!

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/18/2018.

Reflection: the Apocalypse

When we hear the word apocalypse, we usually think about the end of the world. We imagine massive wars, incredible natural disasters, and an unbelievable amount of destruction and anguish. The apocalypse is good for comic books and action movies but it’s not, typically, something we want to live through. One of the ways we anticipate the apocalypse is by asking the question: “what will the end look like?” But that wasn’t a question the bible really spent a lot of time talking about. Instead, the communities who wrote, read, and shared these biblical words wanted to know: “what is the meaning of our suffering?” Those who contributed apocalypse stories to the Bible (Daniel, Revelation, and even bits of the gospel according to Mark) were trying to find meaning in “their own struggle and suffering” (Revelation: Interpretation Commentary, page 43).

Today’s reading from the book of Daniel 12:1-3 is an attempt to find meaning. Daniel is the youngest book in the Old Testament section of our scriptures. The book was set in the years after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians (in the aftermath of the year 586 BCE) but it was probably written 400 years after that. Daniel was composed at a time when the Jewish community faced severe persecutions from the ruling authorities. Judaism was outlawed and Torah scrolls were burned. Religious rites were abolished and children were discouraged from gaining the marks that defined them as part of the Jewish community. Rabbis and students were persecuted and killed. The Jewish community, especially the one centered in Jerusalem, tried to make sense of their suffering. The book of Daniel was a response to that suffering and today’s text is the beginning of the final scene of Daniel’s four visions of the apocalypse. But it’s not a vision of the end. It’s a vision of a new beginning.

Daniel’s vision of the afterlife is less about details of “what” happens and, instead, is centered in hope. Daniel doesn’t try to mask the seriousness of suffering, pain, sadness, and fear. He doesn’t say that what we experience in our life is, somehow, “less real” than it is. Instead, Daniel acknowledges that life can be hard and that following God is not always easy. Our faith requires us to sometimes say “no” to the ways the world try to turn us from God, each other, or call to love the world. There can be a deadly consequence for that “no.” But the world doesn’t define our value or worth; only God can. And through the Spirit and our relationship with Jesus, we are defined by that connection to the divine. This connection is what gives us a new sense of purpose, love, and hope. This connection is what, today and always, gives us life.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/18/2018.

Reflection: The Miracle Isn’t the Whole Story

To see what God is doing in our reading from 1 Kings 17:8-16, we need to start with geography. God sent a message to the prophet Elijah, telling him to go to the Zarephath, a village in the land of Sidon. Sidon is a small country situated on the coast of the Mediterranean sea, bordering the northern part of Israel. Sidon is not Jewish even though some Jewish people lived there. Sidon was a community that traced it’s history to the Phoenicians who famously battled with David and other early leaders of the Israelites. When Elijah received this message, he was sitting in a dried-up wadi to the east of the Jordan River. No rain had fallen in the area for 3 years because God was unhappy with Ahab, the King of Israel. As we will discover later, King Ahab recently married Jezebel, a princess from the land of Sidon Jezebel is not Jewish and when she arrived in Israel, she brought her religion with her. The importation of gods and idols into the royal household was something God wasn’t happy about. God brings about a drought and compels Elijah to tell King Ahab what is going on (1 Kings 17:1). Elijah, rightly, fled Israel after making this statement to the King and he kept a low profile, waiting for the next word from God to come. And when that word comes, God told Elijah that a woman in the land of Jezebel would be the one who would take care of him.

We shouldn’t separate the miracle in this story from the geography because the geography tells us who God is. God isn’t a divine being that only operates in a small geographical area. God, according to 1 Kings, has authority everywhere. This might seem obvious to us but in ancient times, gods were local. Their power was centered in specific places and people. A war between neighboring cities and kingdoms wasn’t a battle between secular rulers: it was also a war between gods. A god needed to defend their own turf or be considered beaten and weak. For the people of Sidon, God was a local deity who operated in the land Israel. God’s power was limited by geography. But 1 Kings 17 shows Elijah, the widow, Ahab and the people of Sidon that God is the God of everywhere.

Imagine, for a moment, if we lived our lives knowing our God is everywhere. What would it look like to trust Jesus is with us in church, at school and in our homes? How would our lives grow if we truly believed that the God who helped a prophet in Sidon is the same God who will help us even if we’re not feeling pretty religious today? What would you do differently today if you knew that wherever you are, Jesus is there?

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/11/2018.

Might/Mite: The Power of a Loud Silence

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Mark 12:38-44

My sermon from the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (November 11, 2018) on Mark 12:38-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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One of the fascinating things about World War 1 is that it’s a war we can see – but one we can’t hear. Even though the war was fought after the invention of the film camera, the videos we have are silent. At the time, sound recordings were mechanically produced by a needle making an etching on wax or metal. The machines that could record sound were simply too big and too delicate to bring into a war zone. Unlike today, where the phone in our pocket can share live images and sounds of wars happening all over the world, the war described as the one to end all wars is one we can’t hear. If want to imagine what that war sounded like, we have to rely on our imagination to fill in the details. A veteran could fill in these auditory gaps, using their own experience in combat or in training as a guide. But the rest of us, well, we have to rely on movies, tv shows, and video games to give us a hint of what war might sound like. However, in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended World War 1, the Imperial War Museum in London found a “recording” of what the last 2 minutes of the war sounded like. Now, it’s not a recording as we understand them to be. It’s more of a series of lines on a chart similar to what we see on a seismometer as it records an earthquake. During World War 1, special military units used microphones and other equipment to find out where enemy artillery fire was coming from. Scouts would watch for the flash from the muzzle of big guns as they fired and then turn on a special machine to record on a filmstrip the intensity of the noise those guns caused. And once that noise was recorded, special computations were done to figure out where those big guns were. Most of these kinds of “recordings” were lost after the end of the war. But at least one piece survived. And that filmstrip recorded the last few moments of World War 1 from the vantage point of the Americans located by the River Moselle. A sound company was commissioned to turn these lines into actual sounds. They researched the guns used in the war, measured the noise intensity labeled by each tick on the lines, and even figured out how the ground would reverberated as each gun went boom. They basically reverse-engineered the sound of the end of a war – and in the minute long clip they posted online, you can hear the artillery guns firing up to the very moment the armistice took effect. Then…silence. And for a bit of drama, the sound company added the chirping of birds to its end.

The clip is pretty powerful. It’s the only audio recording we have of what the battlefield in World War 1 sounded like. But what makes it so intriguing – is its silence. Now, before a sound company reverse-engineered those lines on the filmstrip, we didn’t know what it sounded like. It was, in essence, silent to us. But once those lines were decoded, reworked, and made to speak – what keeps us returning to this recording over and over again is the silence embedded in it. It’s not the sound of the artillery pieces that make this recording interesting. What gives it an emotional boost is what’s on there once the sound of the big guns stop. And it’s a kind of loud silence that helps us discover exactly who we get to be.

Now, there’s some silence in today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark that we don’t always see. And that’s because, even though the reading is short, its words invite us to imagine a very loud and noisy world. Jesus was in Jerusalem, filling his time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday by preaching and teaching in the Temple. The Temple was the heart of the city, full of noise and full of people. They were talking, debating scripture, chanting psalms, and trying to speak up over the hees and haws of the animals waiting to be sacrificed. I’m sure there were moments when the crowd, while participating in religious rituals, were silent – but the sounds of the city would then move in. Jesus, at first, added to the noise by speaking about the flashy kind of scribe who’s style and rich living amped up the volume of whatever space they entered. But then Jesus switched things up. He grew silent. He walked into the outer court, the part of the Temple women could go into, and he sat down opposite the treasury. He watched as the crowd filed past the Temple’s version of a church’s offering plate and he heard the clanking of many metal coins as they landed in the treasury. Scripture doesn’t tell us how long Jesus was silent. But I like to imagine that he sat there for quite awhile. And instead of critiquing what each person offered, he waited until a widow came to the treasury to drop her offering into the plate. We don’t know anything about this widow. We don’t know how old she is, where she comes from, or even why she’s there. She, like Jesus, was silent at this moment in the text. And she’s carrying with her two small copper coins worth a penny. That amount of money couldn’t buy her much of anything. Yet it was all she had. And as she dropped those two coins into the offering plate, they barely clanged, making little noise as they landed.

But Jesus heard them. And he broke his silence to tell his disciples about the widow whose silent actions made an incredible amount of noise. The disciples, as we’ll see in next week’s reading, were focused on the bigness and the noise of it all. The large stones, the fancy robes, and the clang of the many coins tossed into the offering plate drew their notice and attention. But the widow was silent to them because her offering was so small, it appeared to make no noise at all. Yet once the noises around the widow were removed; once she was no longer a person in the crowd but rather a person Jesus saw: she became exactly who she had always been: a person God knew, a person God loved, and a person God saw. Her worth wasn’t defined by the value of what she could put in the offering plate nor by what kind of fancy clothes or places of honor she received while sitting around a dining room table. She was, and always had been, a beloved child of God. And since she didn’t have much of anything, she could only be exactly who she was: a widow who, while in God’s house, gave to God everything she had. Her silent place in the world was, according to God, full of a divine noise that only Jesus chose to hear. And she, owning basically nothing, was still willing to give her whole being to God. We, through the Spirit’s help, can do the same because Jesus Christ, through the Cross, gave his whole self for each of us. We tend to focus on the big noises all around us. We chase after whatever is bigger, brighter, and flashier – looking for stuff, experiences, and other people to fill out life with sound. Yet as baptized and beloved children of God, we already carry within us a divine sound that connects us to the source of all life, hope, and love. We are filled by a divine silence that no earthly sound, experience, doubt, fear, or war can ever drive away or overcome. We, because of Christ, get to be exactly who we are: and you, right now and always, are a beloved child of God.

Amen.

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Children’s Sermon: All In

Hokey Pokey Time.

Hi everyone!

I’m very glad to see you today.

So it’s a little cold outside, right? The leaves are falling from the trees. The wind is blowing. The heat is on in our homes. And it might even snow this week. Can you believe it? No!

Play the Hokey Pokey with the kids.

Pretty simple game right? I tell you what to put into the circle, we move around, and then we turn. We put an arm in. And then we put a leg in. Then we put a face in. We put all our body parts in one at a time until the end – when we put in our whole body. And then the game is over.

But what if we did it differently? What if we just put our whole body in at the very start? It would make for a very short game – and we wouldn’t warm up much – but it would help illustrate one of the many things that Jesus tells us today.

Our story about Jesus today talks about his visit to a holy place, the Temple in Jerusalem. And if you don’t know what the Temple is, think of it as a big church – like this one – but bigger. The temple is full of people and is huge, gigantic, and massive. It looks so impressive that Jesus’ friends can’t help see all the people in fancy clothes who are there, all the religious leaders in their big robes, and all the large stones and statues and images that make the Temple such a vibrant place to be. Jesus’ friends notice the big and fancy stuff. But Jesus notices something different. He notices someone that his friends don’t – a woman who is a widow. And she’s poor. And she doesn’t have much money or resources or wealth. But she takes what she has and offers it to God – because she is all in with God.

She doesn’t just give part of what she has. She gives everything. She doesn’t, like in the hokey pokey, put in only part of her body – her arm, her foot, her leg. She puts her whole body in. And that’s something God wants from us too. God wants us to put our wholeself with God – to trust God, to pray to God, to worship God, and to study God’s word. God wants all of us to be with God – because God, through Jesus’ life – his death on the cross – and his resurrection – has put God’s whole self with each of you.

Thank you for being here! And I hope you have a blessed week!

Each week, I share a reflection for all children of God. The written manuscript serves as a springboard for what I do. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship on the 25th Sunday After Pentecost, 11/11/2018.

Community: Speaking at the Local School Board

I spoke at the November 5 meeting of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District’s board meeting. A local rabbi reached out to me and asked me to be there. Nazi graffiti was recently found at the local high school and some families were going to be there. Antisemitism is ungodly and unholy. The response of the Christian community is vital in combating this hate and evil. The school paper wrote this article after the meeting. The morning after, more swastikas were discovered at the school. I’ve reprinted the article from the school paper below.

Superintendent confirms anti-Semitic graffiti Swastikas found in PV bathrooms
Madison Gallo, Rachel Cohen, and Josh DeLuca – November 6, 2018

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education meeting held on Monday, Nov. 5, Superintendent Erik Gundersen addressed the two “isolated incidents” of anti-Semitic defacement that were discovered Sept. 27 and Oct. 18 inside of Pascack Valley High School.

Two swastikas were found etched into bathroom stall partitions. The first, discovered in September, was located in the second floor boys bathroom. The second, found in October, was in the boys bathroom in the cafeteria.

Gundersen said he does not know who first found these images. He added that all custodians and other staff members have been asked to go into bathrooms to see if there is any symbolism to hopefully narrow down who is responsible for it.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen addresses a parent at the PVRHSD Board of Education meeting on Nov. 5 at Pascack Hills High School. Multiple parents spoke regarding multiple incidents of anti-Semitic defacement at Pascack Valley.

According to Gundersen, after the Anti-Defamation League educated the district years prior on how to combat hate in the school, they [the PVRHSD] knew to immediately shut down the bathroom on the second floor. The police, the PV law enforcement officers Hugh Ames, Mike Niego, and Chip Stalter, and the student resource officer, Mike Camporeale, are also conducting an investigation.

“The reason why it was locked is because we don’t want to subject students to that type of imagery — we don’t want them to see that type of symbolism,” Gundersen said.

Although he did make it clear that he believed the swastikas were drawn by one person, Gundersen declined to comment about any potential leads as to who drew them.

Hillsdale residents and parents of PV students Michelle Silver, Sharon Alessi, Caroline Reiter, and Pastor Marc A. Stuzel of the Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake expressed concern regarding the incidents and criticized the district for not informing parents and members of the community during the comments from the public section of the meeting. The parents said they heard about this matter from other parents who were informed by their children.

“The idea of saying nothing and not addressing it, when clearly people know about it, and the kids are talking about it and parents are talking about it, and nothing is being said by the school,” Reiter said. “…[It] unrightfully so gives off the impression that the school tolerates it.”

Administrators did not brief the community about their findings, and, when being interviewed for another Smoke Signal story on Oct. 24, PV Principal Tom DeMaio was asked about the second floor bathroom being closed. He said it was “under repair from some damage that was done.”

“I did not send something out to the community because I did not believe our students were in danger, and we really have to balance the fact that the student body is not in danger based on the evidence that we have along with the fact the person we believe has done this is doing this solely to disrupt the school,” Gundersen said. “They’re looking for people to react in this manner because they take pleasure in seeing people react to a very cowardly act.”

Rather than sending an email to the community, Gundersen explained that PV Vice Principal John Puccio had a discussion with the Student Government Association at Valley relating to this topic.

“Any speculation that the administration was trying to hide this is simply not the case. Our administration had an open conversation with the Student Government Association,” Gundersen said. “But we purposefully lock it because we don’t want to expose students to that symbolism — it’s just inappropriate, it’s hurtful, and it’s insulting.”

These recent incidents are only nearly four years after a white supremacy scandal plagued the school in the May of 2015.

“We’re aware that school is a reflection of society in general as well. Our students develop certain attitudes, language, and behaviors based on what they see from the adults that they look up to,” Gundersen said. “Unfortunately, we have students that will say and do inappropriate things. Now certainly, the appearance of a swastika takes it to the extreme…And we’re doing our best to educate students and make them aware that how incredibly painful that symbol is.”

This was also made public just over a week after the synagogue massacre at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh that killed 11 Jewish people during a religious ceremony on Oct. 27.

“I’m Jewish myself, I have two Jewish daughters who came through Pascack Valley, I know how they would’ve felt,” PVRHSD Board of Education President Jeffrey Steinfeld said. “I think we have to recognize that their concern is genuine, and we need to validate it and we need to address it.”

Stuzel, whose congregation includes students who attend PV, was in attendance after a rabbi reached out to his interfaith group with news of the anti-Semitic incidents. He was “more than willing to come and speak and support” as he believes that it is important for Christians to “say this is not right” and denounce “hateful” acts.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t something that we should only allow the Jewish community to deal with,” Stuzel said. “It’s a wider community issue.”

Silver, Alessi, and Reiter believe that the district should send an email to the community and host a speaker from an organization, such as the ADL, to discuss the issue of anti-Semitism at the school.

In addition to listening to the concerns of the parents, Stuzel, who is an active member of the local interfaith community, would be willing “to come in and help teach,” “lead programs,” and “talk about the faith community response.”

While Steinfeld did suggest that the district might look to incorporate more involvement from faith leaders, he did not go into specifics as to how the district planned to respond.

“I think Erik [Gundersen] and I will probably speak further about this and will have a greater discussion about what else we want to do and how else we want to address this moving forward,” Steinfeld said.

Saints: You Are Alive

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John 11:32-44

My sermon from All Saints’ Sunday (November 4, 2018) on John 11:32-44. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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There are a few habits I no longer do that I miss. As a kid, my brother and I would wait until the energy in the air was just right and then we’d setup a board game on our bedroom floor, one that would take us days to complete. Later, in college, there was this one spot, next to the bookstore, that overlooked a small creek. Every time I walked past it, I would stop – letting the sound of the flowing water connect me to a God I did not acknowledge but One who was with me all the same. And for a while, I looked forward to turning on my computer each week, visiting the New York Times’ Style Section, and clicking through a new photo gallery showcasing what Bill Cunningham had seen and photographed. Bill Cunningham was an iconic photographer who you could spot in New York City wearing a bright blue French worker’s jacket and riding a single speed bicycle. A hat designer by trade, Bill knew fashion and he spent decades reporting on what new trends were bubbling up across the world. But what made him unique was the time he spent on the street, trying to find that new and interesting thing that people actually wore. He didn’t spend much time looking at the fancy dresses that an actress might wear on the red carpet for an awards show. Bill was more interested in the shoe or the bag or the silhouette that people wore when they went out. He was, in essence, interested in style – which is not the same as fashion. In Bill Cunningham’s memoir, Hilton Als writes in it’s preface that style is “a certain faith and pride in one’s public persona – ‘the face that I face the world with,’” to quote Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth. Style is how we showcase “the existential mess and brights spots called [our] ‘I’” – and Bill wanted to discover “what you had made of yourself.” What made his photospreads awesome wasn’t only the creative people he photographed who had a sense of style that I could never copy or dreamup. What you could see in his photographs was his sheer joy at discovering you. Bill was a creative person with an incredible talent yet he spent all his energy looking at and engaging with other people. He could have focused only on himself or used the people around him to create whatever narrative about the world he wanted to tell. Instead, he used his gifts to point forward, to point to the people around him, because the people around us, I think, are needed so that we can live our life in Christ more fully.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to John ends in an odd spot. Lazarus, who was dead, is now alive. I think we usually imagine this scene as being one where Lazarus walked out of the tomb under his own power. He was sick, he died, Jesus rose him from the dead, and Lazarus left the tomb in better shape than when he first entered it. But when we pay attention to the text, our vision of this scene changes. His walk couldn’t have included his normal strides with one foot in front of the other because his feet were tied together. The best he could do as he exited the tomb was probably shuffle his feet forward. And that shuffle was accomplished almost blindly because a piece of cloth covered his head. And since we hear nothing about Lazarus trying to untie his feet or remove the covering on his head, I imagine his hands were bound to him, removing all freedom of movement. Lazarus exited the tomb but he was still constrained by the burial wrapping for it. Jesus’ words, like the ones spoken in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis, have this power to rearrange the cosmos and reorder our expectations of life and death. But that same word, in today’s text, couldn’t remove a piece of cloth from Lazarus’s head or make his walk from the tomb a little easier. It’s possible, I suppose, that a completely wrapped up Lazarus is how Jesus wanted people to verify that Lazarus was once really dead and now was really alive. But if that’s true, once Lazarus stepped out of the tomb and everyone could see who he was, that part of the story should have ended. But it doesn’t. Instead, Jesus leaves Lazarus bound and, while looking at the crowd, he tells all of them to get up – to go to Lazarus – and unbind him. It’s as if this act of God’s resurrection isn’t complete unless those gathered around participate in some way.

Now it’s hard, at first, to imagine how we can do that. Last I checked, very few of us here have ever raised someone from the dead. But we all, I think, have had moments in our life when the people around us have nourished, sustained, or changed our life into something better. We usually don’t define those moments as equal to Jesus rising from the dead. Our small experience of new life feels tiny and inconsequential in comparison. But I bet the people around Lazarus, when told to go and unbind him, thought what they were doing was small and meaningless too. Yet it’s by Jesus’ invitation that we, in whatever way we can, go and do what Jesus did – and that’s give and generate life. Many of us have been given this life – nourishment, housing, knowledge, experience, guidance, love, forgiveness, mercy, and hope – by a long list of mentors, family members, and friends. They, through Jesus, changed us, informed us, and made us better. Some did so in a very intentional ways; others just by being there in our time of need. I bet many of them never realized just how life-giving they were to us. And many of us never realized how life-giving those people were until years later. We will, in a few moments, light candles in memory of those who gave us life. We will place those candles in the sandbox, letting them burn all the way down, because the life they gave us will never be snuffed out. That life is centered, rooted, and grounded in the One who continually, day in and day out, gives us his life – in baptism, in prayer, at the Lord’s table, and in our faith. Jesus’ invitation to the crowd surrounding Lazarus’ tomb was an invitation for all of us to participate with him in the act of giving life. And we can give this life, make it our habit, because we have, through our baptism, been united with Christ’s own eternal life – a life that doesn’t begin only after we die but one that starts right now. Together we are drawn into God’s act of passing on new life by first bearing witness to the many ways life was given to us and those around us. When we see that life, that love, that hope in our neighbor, in our family member, and in the person sitting in the pew next to us, we discover how we can help unbind each other from the hate, evil, violence, and self-centeredness that this world wants to bind us up with. It’s said that “the light that lit Bill [Cunningham] from within…was that of a person who couldn’t believe his good fortune: he was alive.” You, no matter who you are, no matter your doubts, no matter the ways you feel bounded up – you, through Jesus, are alive. You are a vital part of how Jesus is giving, expressing, and sharing His life with the world. And we are invited to work together, to lean on each other, and to trust each other as God resurrects us, this church, and our world by making Jesus’ life and love a habit for all.

Amen.

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Reflection: Eat It Up

How do we visualize goodness, grace and extravagance without using money? Money might have showed up around 5000 years ago and, by the year 700 BCE (BC), some communities were regularly minting their own coins. The Bible is full of early examples of money. Abraham buys land with money in the book of Genesis but when the Bible talks about his wealth, it points to the number of sheep he has. Solomon gives twenty cities in Ancient Israel to the king of Tyre in exchange for the precious material needed to make the holy Temple. Gold is, by this point, measured (in talents) but only a limited number of people had access to it. There’s a chance most people in Ancient Israel rarely saw money. The few coins they collected were probably used to pay certain taxes to religious and political authorities. For the common person, money was around but it wasn’t an everyday item. It rarely enticed the imagination of the people and wasn’t something they were emotionally invested in.

People might not have cared about money but they did care about wealth. And wealth was something they wanted. Wealth, on one level, was about having enough resources to gain a bit of control over their lives. Instead of a living a life that depended on how good the harvest was every year, wealth allowed a person to survive regardless of the harvest. A wealthy person wasn’t only someone who had 120 talents of gold in their house. A wealthy person also had sheep, goats, and storehouses filled with grain. A person with abundant and extravagant resources was able to feed themselves and their family year after year. So when Isaiah 25:6-9 tried to describe what living with God would be like, he wrote about a feast of good food that never ends.

Isaiah’s feast, of course, is no normal feast. The drink is fantastic, the food is rich, and we are invited to even gnaw on the bones. That might sound a little excessive if we’re vegan but that’s sort of the point. What God offers to us is a connection to the source of all life and that connection will be over the top. This connection is also designed to feed and sustain us. Faith isn’t abstract. Faith feeds, nourishes, and shows us how much God loves us. And this love, no matter where we are in our life, is abundant, over the top, and delicious. In the moments when we feel separated from God and that faith is meant for other people, Isaiah reminds us that God is always for us. And God’s love is extravagant, over the top, and will sustain us through all things.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for All Saints’ Sunday, 11/04/2018.

Reflection: Prayer in Worship

The Mega-millions lottery jackpot peaked at $1.6 billion dollars this week. I didn’t win but I, and maybe you, had fun dreaming about what we’d do if we won. We planned to help friends, pay down debts, and start a hundred new non-profits to help feed the world. The big jackpot allowed me to spend the week quoting my dad (“you can’t win if you play”) and reminding everyone, if they win, to tithe. Lotteries are big business in the United States. In 2016, they generated over $72 billion in ticket sales. States used the money to pay for programs or, in the case of New Jersey, to help pay their state pension problems. The lotteries are a form of gambling even if the wager feels pretty small. And like all gambling, it can be a form of personal entertainment or grow into something destructive. Winning the lottery shouldn’t be our retirement plan but, for some, the lottery might feel like their only hope for a better future. A lotto ticket, in some ways, is like a prayer.

We sometimes believe prayer is like winning the lottery. Our words become our ticket to get God to work on our behalf. It’s a plea to God to just do something. But our prayer during worship is more than an attempt to win this “divine” lottery. Prayer is, first and foremost, rooted in our relationship with Jesus Christ. When we pray for the church, we ask God to make the Christian community as life-giving as Jesus’ own body is to us. When we pray for the earth, we ask God to renew the goodness that’s around us. When we pray for each other, we want people close to us to be made whole. And when we pray for our elected officials and other leaders, we’re not asking for their will to be done. We are asking, instead, for God to rekindle their commitment to justice, humility, and mercy. God already wants all these things. God is actively working on these things. And our prayers, spoken and unspoken, are already heard. But when we name these prayers out loud, we also remind ourselves of what the Christian life is all about. Our prayers for healing remind us of our call to heal. Our prayers for the earth are a reminder that we, as stewards, can take care of our environment. Our prayers for the church invite us to share our faith in Jesus. And our prayers for our leaders are a reminder of the ways we all promise to commit ourselves to love, honor, and help one another.

Jesus knows that prayer can be hard. There are days when we don’t want to pray and there are moments when we feel as if we can’t. Jesus wants us to pray for those it’s easy to pray for and to pray for those we don’t want to pray for. And if we can’t, that’s okay. That’s why we pray, in worship, together. Trust that the people next to you will pray the prayers you can’t. And make sure you’re here to pray the prayers that are hard for them. Our prayers are not about trying to win the lottery. Our prayers are about trying to live into the love Jesus already gave us. And unlike our really low chance at winning the lottery, prayer does more than just connect us with God. Prayer also repairs, renews, and revives our souls.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week (or about our liturgy). This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Reformation Sunday / 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/28/2018.